Relics in the Altar

And More on John Paul II’s Veil

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ROME, MAY 3, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I would like to know the present teaching of the Church, with documentary evidence, on fixing relics of the saints at the altar of Holy Mass. — K.S., Nagapattinam, India

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 302, contains the following statement: «The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics.»

This statement summarizes the more detailed treatment of this question found in other documents such as the Roman Pontifical, Dedication of a Church and an Altar, and in the Ceremonial of Bishops.

No. 866 of this latter book indicates the basic norms for relics:

«The tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar should be preserved, if possible. But the following should be noted:

«a. such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognized as parts of human bodies; hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be placed beneath the altar;

«b. the greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic; it is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it;

«c. a reliquary must not be placed upon the altar or set into the table of the altar; it must be placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits.»

Other numbers such as 876-877 describe some details as to the vesture and form of the entrance processions and the contents of the copy of the record of the dedication to be placed in the reliquary.

Later, in No. 900, the Ceremonial describes the rite of depositing of the relics:

«If relics of the martyrs or other saints are to be placed beneath the altar, the bishop approaches the altar. A deacon or presbyter brings the relics to the bishop, who places them in a suitably prepared aperture. Meanwhile Psalm 15 (14), with the antiphon ‘Saints of God’ or ‘The bodies of the saints,’ or some other suitable song is sung.

«During the singing a stonemason closes the aperture, and the bishop returns to the chair (cathedra).»

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Follow-up: The Pope’s Veil

I knew that I could rely on our well-informed readers to relieve me of my ignorance regarding the purpose of the veil placed on the face of Pope John Paul II before his coffin was sealed (see April 26).

Many readers, above all those hailing from the venerable traditions of the Eastern Churches, have written to explain that this veil is a common custom for priestly funerals, often accompanied by an anointing with blessed oils.

One reader explains: «In the Byzantine funeral-liturgy for a priest, the large veil (the one used to cover chalice and paten) is placed on the face of the deceased. It is on the one hand a symbol of the strength and protection of God, on the other hand a symbol of the tomb of Christ.» Other readers attest similar practices in other rites such as the Melkite and Ruthenian.

Some hypothesize that this custom may have originated in Jewish burial customs.

One reader wrote: «In the Jewish burial custom, the Jews would anoint the faces of their dead priests with oil and then wrap them in a white cloth. This same action was apparently performed on Jesus.

«In the early Eastern churches at every Divine Liturgy, the priest would fan his chalice veil over the gifts during the Creed (a practice that endures to this day). During this fanning of the gifts, the priest is not to look over the top of the veil to the other side, a symbolic sign that, here on earth, he has the faith to believe what, after he dies, he will come to see.

«After the death of the priest, the veil would be placed over the face of the priest, with the front side of the veil, which faced away from him during the Creed, touching his face. This veiling of the priest’s face was symbolic of the fact that, now that the priest was dead, he now saw what before he only believed.»

Another reader referred to the TV commentary on the funeral in which a bishop commented that «the veil was requested by the Holy Father and points to the Scripture by St. Paul: ‘We do not see clearly, as through a veil, but then (at the end of time) clearly.’ At the resurrection, the commentators added, when the Pope’s body is resurrected, he will remove the veil to see God face to face as a soul reunited with his body. I thought it was a beautiful comment.»

It is certainly an appropriate comment, although perhaps not the liturgical reason for the inclusion of this rite as I am inclined to accept the Eastern origin suggested by our correspondents.

Mind you, I am convinced that the veil will be removed well before the resurrection, when, following John Paul II’s likely beatification, his relics will leave the crypt to join other saintly pontiffs in St. Peter’s Basilica itself.

A Hong Kong reader asked some questions regarding liturgical norms.

«According to the Ordo, ritual Masses are not permitted on the Sundays of the Advent, Lent and Easter seasons,» the reader noted. «Then, why was a papal inauguration Mass held on fifth Sunday of the Easter? … We give a lot of theological and liturgical reasons to explain the importance of the liturgical season; however, we break it when we like. … Also will the «new» (or ancient) style of pallium used for other metropolitans?»

As regards the pallium we will have to wait until the next feast of Sts. Peter and Paul to find out, unless in his next public Mass the Holy Father Benedict XVI reverts to the former style.

With respect to the change-of-Mass formula, our correspondent is correct that, strictly speaking, a ritual Mass is not normally allowed on a Sunday in the Easter season.

However, the Pope is the supreme legislator and is able to dispense from a liturgical law for a justifiable reason.

Such dispensations have already been granted for other just causes such as the celebration of the Immaculate Conception in Spain and Italy and that of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. These feasts are celebrated even if they coincide with a Sunday of Advent, as the dates are intimately tied up to the religious practice of the people in these countries and are also celebrated as civil holidays.

Our correspondent might want to place his objection in perspective. A Mass of papal inauguration probably occurs about six or seven times a century; a funeral could happen every week. The danger of a papal inauguration undermining the theology of the liturgical year is scant and I believe the occasion more that justifies an exception to a liturgical norm.

Finally, a Michigan reader asked about the significance of the triple coffin, the coins and the biography placed alongside the body, and the nine days of mourning.

The nine days is a fairly traditional period of mourning in many countries although not universal as some traditions have 30 days or another period.

The use of some means of identification of the deceased were customary practices that arose in earlier times, above all, for the burial of nobility and monarchs. Such identification has resulted necessary at times. Tombs can be moved, over time, and nothing is permanent. It is enough to think that the first St. Peter’s basilica, finished about the year 330, was almost completely demolished to make way for the present structure over a thousand years later.

The triple coffin probably originated from practical concerns to protect the body, especially as most popes were interred in an above-ground sarcophagus.

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Readers may send q
uestions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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